A 7.6-magnitude earthquake strikes PNG. Violent clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Xi Jinping travels again. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Russian military red-faced as Ukraine recaptures vital cities

A resident of Balakliia, Ukraine, collects a bag containing humanitarian aid as help arrived in the newly liberated city this week.
A resident of Balakliia, Ukraine, collects a bag containing humanitarian aid as help arrived in the newly liberated city this week.
Credit: Reuters / Gleb Garanich

Great power rivalry 

Ukraine: A fast-moving counteroffensive by Ukraine continued to reclaim territory this week, adding to a humiliating Russian military defeat that prompted recriminations in Moscow. 

During a push across Ukraine’s north-east that began on September 6, Ukrainian forces have recaptured vital cities and celebrated their greatest victory since thwarting Russia’s attempt to take Kyiv at the outset of the war. On Tuesday, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, said Ukraine had recovered about 8000 square kilometres of land in the north-east. Ukraine has also taken territory in the south. 

Video footage this week showed Ukrainian forces being cheered and greeted as liberators as they entered villages filled with abandoned Russian vehicles, destroyed military hardware and ruined buildings. 

In Verbivka, a village that had been occupied for almost seven months by about 100 Russian-backed separatist soldiers, an elderly resident, Tetiana Sinovaz, told Reuters that living under occupation had been “scary”. “We tried to walk around less, so they’d see us less,” she said.

Ukraine’s counteroffensive was reportedly planned with the input of American military intelligence officials, and was assisted by Western supplies of long-range weapons that struck targets inside Russian-held areas and helped to cut vital supply lines.

Russia’s defence ministry acknowledged its retreat, saying its forces had “regrouped”. But the loss of territory raised questions about the readiness and morale of Russian troops, and prompted attacks on the military by nationalists. Some commentators called for a nationwide mobilisation to avoid defeat. Vladimir Solovyov, a pro-Putin state-media radio and television presenter, said on Telegram that many Russian military leaders “deserve to be dismissed in disgrace, and some of them should be shot”. 

Dmitry Peskov, a spokesperson for the Kremlin, said this week that Russia’s “special military operation” will continue “until all the goals that were originally set are achieved”.

The neighbourhood 

Papua New Guinea: A 7.6-magnitude earthquake struck a remote region of Papua New Guinea last weekend, killing at least 10 people and destroying hundreds of homes.

Emergency services and relief workers were struggling this week to reach affected areas to assist with evacuations of injured residents. Damage was reported across the provinces of Morobe, Eastern Highlands and Madang. 

Maki Igarashi, from the International Federation of Red Cross, told AFP the quake’s epicentre was in “the middle of the jungle” and that internet and power outages had hampered the relief effort.

The quake caused landslides and damaged roads and buildings, including at the University of Goroka. In the town of Madang, 389 houses collapsed.

Erebiri Zurenuoc, from Manolos Aviation, a firm assisting with evacuations near the village of Kombul, told Reuters: “Half of the mountain is gone.”

The commissioner of police, David Manning, said in a statement on Monday that the initial earthquake struck the Markham Valley at 9.46am on Sunday, followed by a 5.0 magnitude quake about 70 kilometres north an hour later.

“This was a significant earthquake; however, it occurred deep below ground level and this meant damage was less than if the epicentre had been closer to the surface,” he said.

Democracy in retreat 

Azerbaijan: Clashes erupted this week between Armenia and Azerbaijan, leaving about 100 soldiers dead and marking the worst violence between the former Soviet republics since their 44-day war in 2020.

The two states have been engaged in a long-running conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous region that is in Azerbaijan but has an Armenian majority. 

In 2020, a series of border clashes led to a war that left more than 6500 people dead and ended with a fragile truce brokered by Russia, which deployed about 2000 troops to the region as peacekeepers. 

Armenia, whose population is mostly Christian, has an alliance with Russia. Azerbaijan, which is mostly Muslim, is backed by Turkey. 

Some analysts speculated Azerbaijan may have started or escalated the latest clashes to take advantage of the strains on the Russian military, which is struggling in Ukraine and may be less able to assist Armenia.

Armenia’s government said on Tuesday that at least 49 of its soldiers had been killed and it would officially ask Russia for assistance. Azerbaijan said 50 of its soldiers had been killed.

Earlier this year, the European Union brokered talks between the two states that ended with an agreement to “advance discussions” on a future treaty.

Both sides blamed each other for the outbreak of fighting this week. A ceasefire was agreed to on Monday but it lasted only minutes before fighting resumed.

Spotlight: Xi Jinping leaves China

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Chinese president Xi Jinping travelled overseas about six times a year, often visiting multiple countries during trips that regularly lasted a week or longer. 

But, after an official visit to Myanmar in mid-January 2020, Xi stopped travelling as the coronavirus spread and he committed to a zero-Covid strategy. 

Though his determination to eliminate the virus has not wavered, Xi, who leads the world’s second-most powerful country, finally decided to leave China again this week. He visited Kazakhstan on Wednesday and then travelled to Uzbekistan, where he was due to meet with Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of a gathering of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. The decision to go to Kazakhstan may have been prompted by its importance to China’s energy flows. Pipelines in Kazakhstan provide China with crucial gas and oil supplies.

Xi, who famously committed to a “no limits” friendship with Putin weeks before the invasion of Ukraine, may have wanted to meet Putin to ensure Russian energy supplies remain reliable. As Europe and Western countries have reduced their purchases of Russian fuel to protest over the war, China has increased its purchases, often at discount prices. 

The summit in Uzbekistan provided an opportunity for Xi and Putin to demonstrate the strength of their anti-Western solidarity, yet the future of their friendship is hardly guaranteed. China’s influence is gradually increasing across Central Asia and cutting into Russia’s traditional dominance there, mirroring the dynamic in eastern Europe that prompted Putin to lash out at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and to invade Ukraine. 

Niva Yau, an expert on China’s approach to Central Asia, told DW News this week: “What China doesn’t realise is that Russia’s goal is not to bring down the West but to rebuild the Soviet Union.”

Xi is expected to travel again soon, including to Bali in November for a G20 summit, where he is expected to meet with Putin and United States President Joe Biden. It is not clear if he will meet with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. Xi’s last meeting with an Australian prime minister was in 2017, when he met with Malcolm Turnbull on the sidelines of a G20 summit in Hamburg.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 17, 2022 as "Russian military red-faced as Ukraine recaptures vital cities".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription